Study Guide

The Crying of Lot 49 The Play-Within-the-Play: The Courier's Tragedy

By Thomas Pynchon

The Play-Within-the-Play: The Courier's Tragedy

About a third of the way through Lot 49, we are suddenly subjected to a ten-page plot summary of a made-up Jacobean Revenge Play called The Courier's Tragedy, allegedly written by a man named Richard Wharfinger. Guys, this is not a real play.

The play is super-duper complicated. So what's the point? Well, we're going to check out a weird source: Shakespeare.

The most famous play-within-a-play ever written is The Murder of Gonzago in Shakespeare's Hamlet. As in Hamlet, Pynchon's play-within-a-play is intended to reflect the bigger issues in the book, and to speed the plot along. In this case, its labyrinthine complexity is also meant to parody the entire tradition of Jacobean Revenge Plays… as well as the complexity of Lot 49 itself. (No one ever accused Pynchon of not having a sense of humor.)

The main event that is echoed in the play is that a group is savagely murdered and their bones are sunk at the bottom of a lake. Weirdly, Oedipa has recently heard a story from Manny Di Presso about a bunch of American GIs who were massacred in Italy during World War II and who were thrown in a lake.

In the play, it's revealed that the evil usurping prince Angelo has massacred the Lost Guard, the elite army of the rightful Duke of Faggio. When Niccolo is murdered by the same lake, Oedipa thinks that the depiction of his murder is oddly similar to a description she has recently heard of attacks on Pony Express riders in the late nineteenth century. At the close of the play, a character utters the word "Trystero," and the seed of the grand conspiracy is planted in Oedipa's mind (3.130).

But all of the similarities to reality that Oedipa sees in Lot 49 are only odd, vague, and quite possibly coincidental. After all, Oedipa went to see the play because one of the Paranoids' girlfriends told her that it resembled Di Presso's story. Oedipa is hooked, though, and she goes to see the play's director, Randolph Driblette, who tells her that the text isn't that important, that all that matters is how Wharfinger's text took shape in his own head. He warns her:

"You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That's it." (3.170)

It's good advice, but advice that Oedipa pays no attention to.

Through Driblette, Pynchon is also able to poke fun at literary scholars (which, hey, we're your friends, Pynchon!). His work is purposely designed to mess with their minds. Though it vaguely hints at deeper meaning, it is full of red herrings, rabbit holes, false significance, and enormously complex plots that turn out not to resolve themselves.

Oedipa is forced to function as an amateur literary scholar, and as scholars attempt to puzzle through Lot 49, they inevitably find themselves in the same predicament as Oedipa Maas: What is significant? What's not? What's real? Is this all a hoax?! Help!